How do mediums speak to the dead? (The Medium)

Spoiler: they don’t. Unless they are the tortured protagonist of The Medium, a new horror game from the makers of Layers of Fear. She talks to the dead all the time, shifting between our world and a decaying spirit realm as she is pursued by a malevolent presence with a gurgling voice. Do “real” mediums have such problems with spirits? And how do television mediums and psychic performers correctly intuit so much about their audience members? We spoke to expert fact-checker Susan Gerbic to discover the psychological tricks mediums use to fool their audience, and how she goes about performing a “sting” on a phony psychic.

With guest co-host Edwin Evans-Thirlwell.

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Click “read more” for a full list of links and transcription.


Susan Gebric’s blog

Inside the secret sting operations to expose celebrity psychics (New York Times)

A good summary of a sting

Follow Susan on Twitter

Follow Edwin on Twitter

Some of Edwin’s reviews and features on The Guardian

The Medium is on Steam

Interview music is Shores of Avalon by Kevin MacLeod lol

All SFX and ending music are from various promo trailers for The Medium

Episode transcription:

Susan Gerbic, skeptic: Mediums are people who claim to be able to speak to the dead.

Marianne (soundbite from The Medium): I’ve spent my whole life looking beyond the edges of our reality.

Susan Gerbic: It’s like an act.

Marianne: Even as a child, I saw things that would break a grown man.

Susan Gerbic: One says that the spirits are communicating with her through blinking.

Marianne: But that… thing…

Susan Gerbic: I’ve had people say that they see it as a white space… I personally think they’re just making up whatever.

Brendan Caldwell, host: Helllo, this is Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask clever people silly questions inspired by video games. I’m Brendan Caldwell, your host, and I am here to underhandedly teach you things through the lens of popular games, uh, with the help of some friends of course. Today, we’re talking about horror game The Medium, a creepy third-person adventure in which you play a medium, uh, somebody who talks to the spirits of the dead. But is this really possible? No, it’s not. And we know it’s not because this week we spoke to a fact-checking vigilante skeptic who performs sting operations on real life mediums to debunk their claims of being able to talk to the dead. She’s got a lot of interesting stuff to tell us. So please keep listening to hear from her. Before we get into any of that. Let me introduce my guest co-host this week, who’s going to talk about the video game itself. It’s journalist and critic Edwin Evans-Thirlwell! How are you doing?

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, critic: Hello, I am doing okay. Thank you.

Brendan: You’ve been playing this video game to review.

Edwin: Yes.

Brendan: Before we go into it too much, where my people recognize you from?

Edwin: So I’m mostly found at, Eurogamer and Edge and occasionally on the Guardian, but it’s… I’ve been kind of knocking around for donkey’s years and I’ve sort of written little bits and pieces for everybody over the centuries.

Brendan: So could you just explain the game to people who maybe haven’t heard of it? Like, what is The Medium?

Edwin: So it’s a third person survival horror, and it is set in Poland in more or less the present day. And it concerns a medium called Marianne who is obviously somebody who can communicate with the dead. And in her case specifically, she can actually go into the spirit plane, which kind of sets up this gameplay dynamic… you can kind of move in the material world and the spirit plane at the same time. The screen splits down the middle and you can explore these environments using kind of fixed-camera perspectives, similar to the classic Resident Evils, and solve puzzles and avoid monsters. The story is about her going to this, uh, ruined Soviet worker’s resort, which has an awful lot of, uh, malevolent, psychic energy, I think it’s fair to say, and dealing with some personal revelations there. She’s one of those orphans who has no memory of her youth, one of those old chestnuts. And so she’s trying to work out what exactly is going on

Brendan: Ah yes, one of those video game protagonists, no clue why she is where she is.

Edwin: She kind of… you start the game and she’s… her foster parent runs a funeral parlor, which is just a great place to grow up when you’re a medium, I guess. A lot of material to work with. It’s definitely quite a theme. It’s just… having said that, it’s not a very… it’s more of a game of ambience, the sort of creeping atmosphere, than it is about the jump scares.

Brendan: We’re going to talk a bit more about that kind of stuff and the chatting to the phantoms and the puzzles and the story a little bit, maybe. The game itself is coming out tomorrow by the time that this episode airs. But before we go deeper into it, we wanted to know more about real life mediums. We wanted to know how they performed their abilities, so to speak. How can they be talking to dead people? And if they’re not, how do they fool so many people into believing that they can speak to the dead? So to that end, I spoke to Susan Gerbic. She is part of a hardened group of Wikipedia editors who fact-check and try to keep Wikipedia is free from hokum as possible. But she also organizes a group of skeptics… who debunk mediums by performing, uh, what she calls “stings” at their shows. So here’s what she had to tell us.

[Interview begins]

Marianne (soundbite): It all starts with a dead girl.

Brendan: First Of all, I just want you to introduce yourself to our listeners, who are you?

Susan Gerbic: I am Susan Gerbic. I am known as “the Wikipediatrition”… affectionately. They call me that. I’m also someone who debunks “grief vampires” which are people who communicate – supposedly – communicate with the dead. I run an international Wikipedia editing team that specialises in maintaining and correcting and building Wikipedia pages concerning science, scientific skepticism, claims of the paranormal. And I have fingers in more pies than there are pies on pie day.

Brendan: So if somebody writes a Wikipedia entry for like “astral projection” or “mind-reading” or something like that, you’ll be in that Wikipedia entry, trying to make sure that it’s all factual.

Susan Gerbic: Yes. And I have a team of people doing that. I don’t need to do it so much anymore. We’ve written a little over 1,560 Wikipedia pages. Uh, the Wikipedia pages that we have written and maintained have been viewed over 79 million times.

Brendan: Okay.

Susan Gerbic: So we’re trying to make sure that Wikipedia stays “sciency”, scientifically literate.

Marianne (soundbite): Every story has two sides, a regular rational one, but also a darker and deeper truth.

Brendan: Uh, right now we’re playing a video game about a medium. She can see the dead. She says she speaks to them. It’s a horror game, but could you explain to us very briefly what a medium does in real life? Or what they claim to be able to do?

Susan Gerbic: Okay. So what they claim to do… there’s a long history of spiritualism in the United States, going back to, I guess, the 1800s. People claim to be able to communicate with the dead. And nowadays it’s become easier to make the claim because TV shows and news media are happy to throw the psychic of the day onto a morning show and have them make some predictions.

Brendan: Is there some similarity in what all mediums claim to be able to see or hear in the video game? For instance, this medium can sort of see a whole other realm around her on top of the real world. Um, is it that type of thing they claim that they can do? Or is it more vague?

Susan Gerbic: It’s all varied, what these mediums claim, there’s so many different things. I don’t think that most of the mediums that you talk to (and the mediums are people who claim to be able to speak to the dead, which is different from person who says they’re psychic – the psychic is more somebody who, I don’t know, maybe tells the future, or can tell if you have a curse on you or something like that, but not necessarily claiming to speak to dead people) but they’re all different. It’s, it’s like an act, whatever they come up with. Um, you know, I have one, I just researched recently. She’s into blinking, and no, that is not something I’m mis-stating. She blinks rapidly and says that the spirits are communicating with her through blinking, and she uses the word “blinking” all the time. “I’m getting… I’m blinking six. So that must mean, uh, on the sixth month or maybe the sixth day, does the six have anything to do with…?” You know, that’s how her thing is, with blinking. I’ve had people say that they see it as a white space and people enter into it. I personally think they’re just making up whatever.

Brendan: As some of our listeners might’ve already realized. You’re not totally convinced of these people’s powers.

Susan Gerbic: Oh, it would be awesome if they could, boy, let me tell you. What a world would we be in. If we could really communicate with the dead, that’d be great.

Marianne (soundbite): I’ve spent my whole life looking beyond the edges of our reality.

Brendan: So when a medium, correctly tells someone in a crowd say, or a person that they’re talking to the name of a dead relative, for example… how do you explain that?

Susan Gerbic: Well, first off, the burden of proof is on them to explain it. Not me, you know, that’s how it works. But if we want to go further and assume that the burden of proof is on the skeptic, or the person who is not making the claim, there are usually three different elements that you see whenever you’re watching a psychic supposedly do their thing. One is cold reading, which is generalities that are thrown out, that fit most people. The second thing is hot reading, which is my speciality, whenever, uh, these grief vampires go and look at obituaries or Facebook pages, social media. And then they say that they’re getting their information from the spirit world. And the third way they look like they appear to be real is the editors who are doing the magic behind the scenes – as you will be doing with this interview we’re doing – you’re picking out the best parts. And you take out all the ums and ahs. And the next thing you’ve got is magic.

Brendan: [laughing] That’s exactly right.

Susan Gerbic: And there’s multiple ways. The larger the room is the more likely the medium is going to get something right by throwing things out – the law of large numbers. Um, they [say] things that sound specific that really aren’t very specific… who died of a heart attack? Who had a miscarriage? Who had a fire in their home? And somebody in the audience is going to raise their hand and say, “that must be me.” And then they can go on from there. These people are very skilled. I mean, they’ve done thousands of readings. So don’t underestimate their skill.

Marianne (soundbite): You startled me!
Sadness: I did, didn’t I? You looked really scared!

Susan Gerbic: A lot of times they play the game of names. I had one just recently, she was talking about a “Rose”. There’s a Rose and that might be somebody’s name, or it could be she had roses or whatever, and it was your grandmother. And so I looked at… here in America, we have something called the Social Security baby name index. Everything everybody’s been named – first names, male or female – going back to like 1900. And I was looking it up. And in 1910, 1920, 1930, Rose was one of the most common names. So for the psychic to throw out the name Rose, it could be a first name, a middle name, a nickname. It could be the dog’s name. It could be that they worked for a company “Rose Perfumes”. I mean, it could be so many different things. And so the believer, the person in the audience, wants to believe so badly that they will… they will try to make a connection.

Marianne (soundbite): Thomas, do you know him?
Sadness: Uh, let me think… I’ve heard that name before…

Brendan: You’ve used these phrases like cold reading and hot reading. And the coal reading I’m guessing is that, you know, saying vague things that sound specific. Or trying to goad a name out of someone by naming letters. On the opposite end of that, a hot reading is something that’s much more detailed for a certain reason, right?

Susan Gerbic: So hot reading, as I said, is my specialty. We had a woman just contacted me [to say] that a psychic told her that her son was in spirit. He’s been dead six years and he’s there “with Connor”… and he said, “Who’s Connor?”. She says, “It’s the family dog”. And he said, “Yes, because he’s saying – your son is saying – that he’s there with the family dog”. And she was amazed until she went and looked up her son’s obituaries. And there it very clearly says that her son died six years ago. And he’s leaves behind… the family dog named Connor. So that’s considered a hot read. And I’m a bit of a Snoop myself. I’m really socially…. I do a lot of genealogy. So I have access to something called I also have… And I’m just really good at finding information on people. And I have a team of people called the Guerilla Skeptics that also can do this as well. And you just get pretty good at finding obituaries and looking through the obituaries, trying to find information, some psychics like to hot read a lot. That’s their whole thing is to just look you up and repeat it as if they’re getting it from spirit.

Marianne (soundbite): Wait, I know you… You were that boy. Bernard was it?

Brendan: So there are ways to find out that a medium is doing a hot reading. You have some experience in performing what you call sting operations on mediums. How do you perform a sting operation on a medium?

Susan Gerbic: It’s so much fun. Oh my gosh, it’s the greatest way of hanging out with some friends. So you got to figure out what the modus operandi of that particular psychic is. I mean, are they on Instagram? Are they, are they even hot reading? Like I said, most don’t. Most are just cold readers. And if you’re going to be investigating a cold reader, you just get a recording of it. Then you listen to it multiple times, slowing it down, and you can see there’s just wordplay going on. Hot readers – what we’ve done multiple times is we have Facebook pages that are not associated with our real Facebook pages. And they’re having friendships and relationships with other fake Facebook pages. And they just go about their day and… you know, something happens at work and maybe they had an argument with their spouse and, Oh my gosh, the lady next door died. And it’s just so awful, you know, and whatever happens… and they share pictures of their dogs and cats, and they just have these lives. And so when we’re going to attend a psychic event, you can tell the psychic that fake Facebook page is going to be there. You know… you would buy your ticket under that name. You would maybe go to the psychic’s Facebook page and say, “Oh, I’m so excited. I’m going to be talking to such-and-such psychic today”. Leaving your Facebook page totally exposed so that the psychic can go in and just click on your name and see what’s going on in your life, whatever they need to find out. So they can go in and look at that. It’s like leaving some bacon out there for ’em. Yeah.

Marianne (soundbite): I know all these people, they weren’t just killed their spirits were ripped apart, broken beyond repair.

Susan Gerbic: The one that I’m famous for is called “Operation Pizza Roll”… There was two Facebook pages. Um, my husband, who – I’m not married – had heart conditions. I was trying to get in touch with my dead twin brother named “Andy” who died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago. And…

Brendan: These are all fake.

Susan Gerbic: These are fake, I have no twin brother. I have no brother named Andy. Nobody’s dying.

Brendan: These are characters.

Susan Gerbic: It’s a character. And what’s important for people to understand is that it’s double-blinded. The account of that fake Facebook is being run by somebody else. Who’s not communicating with the person who attends the event. So the person who attends the event is given basic information. Like I was, I was told I have a brother who died of pancreatic cancer. He was a twin and his name is Andy. “That’s all you need to know, Susan.” And then when the psychic gets up on stage and says, “I’m getting a twin brother who wants to reach a sister. And I’m feeling something in this area here in the stomach… I think it’s… I think it’s cancer.” Then I know to raise my hand. And so I raised my hand and then he goes on and tells me all the other stuff that’s on the Facebook page. I have to nod and agree, not knowing what’s on that Facebook page. I’m just nodding and agreeing and pretending to cry and being emotional. And there’s audio of it up on my website. So if anybody wants to hear it…

Medium (from Susan’s recording): I have to tell you, just as soon as I’m tapping into you, somebody’s making me aware of cancer. Is this your brother? Did he have cancer?
Susan Gerbic, in character: Yes.
Medium: Okay. Because he showed me… [fades out]

Susan Gerbic: And then after the event’s over and we’ve got it all recorded, we can compare the reading to the Facebook page. And that’s when the person who was the sitter is finally made aware of how close they [the medium] got. And in a hot reader’s case, you’re going to find that it’s pretty damn close.

Medium: No, but I think it’s your brother… your twin, did he quit smoking?
Susan in character: Yes.

Brendan: In this horror game, The Medium, it’s quite nasty. Like there’s a lot of monstrous kind of things happening. There’s been murders. You know… nasty things have happened to people. Mediums in real life don’t seem to be troubled that much by, say, spirits with negative energy or something. In fact, they rarely say anything negative to their subjects. Why is that? Surely statistically you’d expect a medium to run into a nasty ghost. Once in a while, it would say something bad to their son or daughter.

Susan Gerbic: They’re here to make money. So they’re not going to be telling you that you, uh, you know, I see, I see bad things for you. They’re going to say only good things. And unless you’re one of these people who are… and this happens a lot, I have a friend named Bob Nygaard, who is a private investigator, that has put many psychics in jail, or busted, for crimes. What they do is they say they see a curse on you, and “I need to take your money… your money’s dirty, or your jewelry is dirty, or these gold coins are dirty”… You know, they say you got to buy a candle and “I’m going to pray over that… take this lock of hair and put it under your pillow overnight.” And that’s a whole other wing of it. But, you know, I think about these TV psychics who are more my speciality. And how do you function? You know, if you really were communicating with the dead, I think you would be… not mentally stable. It’s not like The Sixth Sense. You know, this little kid’s walking around and he sees dead people… I mean, even think about that, what that would be like, that would be horrendous. You would just never be able to function.

Marianne (soundbite): Even as a child, I saw things that would break a grown man.

Susan Gerbic: Think, you couldn’t have a relationship with another human being because you would be constantly seeing Bad or whatever. Um, you couldn’t go to the grocery store. You couldn’t interact with humans. I just can’t. I mean, the person is delivering your newspaper, your mail, and you take a look at them and they get this, whatever, glow around him and you see demons coming after him. It just… it gets to be absurd after a while. At the point that this can’t be real, it has to be fantasy.

Brendan: Some people listening might be thinking, you know, why go to the trouble? Why debunk these people? When so many of their audience would leave their shows feeling like they really have spoken to someone, like their mother or their sister or whoever, you know, what harm are these mediums doing? Really?

Susan Gerbic: That’s a really valid question. And that gets down to it. Now, I’m really anti-lying to people, especially lying to people who are grieving and who are desperate to hear [something]. And yes, they may leave the event feeling an euphoria that they’ve just had a contact with their child or their whatever, and they’re crying and it feels amazing. And they tell everyone they know… they’re still being lied to. And it’s wrong to take advantage of people’s grief for that. Plus a lot of the times these people come to the realization that they were lied to, especially in the hot reading. They also give a lot of advice. It’s medical or relationship advice [and] is probably not… they don’t know all the circumstances. Like they’ll tell you, “stay with your husband” or, you know, “keep working on that relationship” or “no, you should divorce him”. Or maybe you should, you know, “look out for a person whose name is Jordan who’s going to be coming into your life soon. And he’s going to be your light. He’s going to be your life partner”. Well, what if you meet somebody named Steve, who’s really awesome? You’re going to say, “Steve? Forget you. I’m waiting for Jordan.”

Marianne (soundbite): Easy, Marianne. It’s just a good old -ashioned haunted hotel.

Brendan: As a skeptic, the problem for you must be convincing people who would normally believe a medium or [believe] in ghosts or in the supernatural – convincing those people – that this is a trick. It’s a… psychological sleight of hand, but these are quite stubborn superstitions, right? They have been part of human thinking for millennia. Is it quite difficult to fight against that?

Susan Gerbic: You know, that’s a great question. Um, I’m trying to be, you know, over the years, as I’m getting older, I’m learning that you really have to be kind. These people who believe, they’re not stupid, they don’t deserve this to happen to them. They just get conned because they don’t know. They’re trusting, loving people who are in desperate or vulnerable situations. And it’s like a whack-a-mole thing out there. There’s so many psychics. The TV shows keep happening for these psychics that we know are defrauding people. They’re still getting TV time. They’re still getting shows in Vegas. They’re still getting things happen. And it’s frustrating. But then I think about these people who reach out to me every few weeks and say, “I read your article. Now I understand what was happening to me. And thank you so much. Bless you. Please keep up the work… he didn’t take a lot of money from me, but at least now I know”. You know, I get frustrated and sad and then somebody writes to me and says, “You’re doing a good job”. You know, you put the content out there for people to find. You’re not going to argue people out of this. An awful lot of people who come to me and say that they have seen the light, they understand now. Well, they’ve seen the light, but they’ve seen the light for that specific psychic. So we don’t try to debunk all psychics. We just say: “In the case that you were talking about, the psychic you are talking about right now, this is what I think he did.” And I’m fine with it. I just want to try to put the bug in their ear.

Marianne (soundbite): I’m sorry you had to go through this. It’s time for you to find peace.

[Interview ends]

Brendan: That was Susan Gerbic, co-founder of the Monterey County Skeptics. If you want to hear more of that interview, you can get a longer version by subscribing to the Hey Lesson Patreon. For $2 a month you get all of the unabridged interviews we do with our experts. So in this case, if you wanted to learn, for example, how mediums are benefiting from the COVID-19 pandemic or the important distinction between a magician and a medium, Susan does talk about that stuff in the unabridged version for supporters. Just go to, or click the link in the show notes below. Uh, also being a supporter is just… it’s just being helpful. We don’t have any ads on Hey Lesson. We don’t have any sponsors. So even if you aren’t listening to every one of these unabridged interviews, you’re still helping us to keep going, which is nice. Edwin, have you ever been to see a medium?

Edwin: I have not. Um, I don’t think I have. I’ve been to see performances that are kind of similar. I mean, I could recognize some of Susan’s descriptions, some of the artistry of it, but it was an interesting introduction to the… the techniques or the graft as being, as being a medium or a psychic or whatever… Like, I mean, the whole idea of kind of reaching for generalities makes sense to me, obviously, and reading up on people beforehand, so that you can get a sense of how to pretend you’ve been in touch with their relatives. I mean, that all seems fairly intuitive.

Brendan: The cold reading thing, especially, is very reminiscent of astrology, you’re reading your horoscope and thinking “this definitely applies to me” but it’s… it’s actually just very vague, uh, statements or sentiments about how you will meet someone who interests you…

Edwin: Yeah, it’s impressive. And actually it made me think that… The Medium, the game, obviously treats it all as literally true. Many of the questions that come up in Susan’s analysis don’t really come up in The Medium because it’s like, no, this is literally the case. You can go over there, there’s a huge scary monster, hide behind this crate, it’s coming to get you. Whereas, it sounds like there’s a more interesting game, in some ways, to make about the idea of being a kind of crackpot medium and, you know, trying to convince people, gathering information, like, you know, having an audience. You can kind of imagine it as a sort of a balance of, I dunno, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Guitar Hero, where you’ve got an audience and you’ve got to boost your “believe” rating, you know… say the right things at the right times. I’d like… I’d quite like to play that. Whereas The Medium, the game, is a little… mixed, I have to say.

Brendan: There’s definitely room for a game about a medium who’s a complete phony and a fraud, who subsequently gets haunted by some kind of spirit, almost as recompense for their fraudulent behavior.

Edwin: And you could… being the investigator would also make for a fun game, to be the person sitting in the crowd, you know, having assembled these fake Facebook accounts and whatever, maybe trying to catch them out. I mean, again, it’s just… Phoenix Wright does in fact have ghosts in it, doesn’t it? So it’s kind of essentially this already. I just have to work out what to shout instead of “objection”.

Brendan: “Not real!”

Edwin: I’m sure we can think of a more elegant version of it than that, but like, yeah. Something like, you know…

Brendan: “Hot read!”

Edwin: Yeah. “I’m getting a feeling!”

Brendan: The medium in this video game, like you say, she’s not a telly medium. I think she’s called Marianne.

Edwin: Yes.

Brendan: She’s not a hotel showroom medium. She’s a bit different. How is she different to, to what Susan would have described?

Edwin: Most obviously she’s not trying to make money from it and she kind of sees it as a bit of a curse. Obviously it becomes practically useful to her, but a lot of the game is about finding out how exactly she got lumbered with this ability and, um, you know, whether it has any kind of redeeming value whatsoever. I don’t want to kind of like spoil too much, but, um, the kind of the wider story deals with a lot of questions of parental – or more accurately patriarchal – abuse and how that may or may not be linked to… the question of how she has these spiritual, these supernatural powers. So yeah, she’s very much not trying to con people out of their cash. She doesn’t really have an audience most of the time. Most of the time her audience is various spirits and just, I don’t know, creepy ambiance.

Brendan: The game doesn’t really go down that road of being a money-focused career of showmanship. It’s fantasy, pretty clear and simple.

Edwin: I feel like it could though. I mean, when you meet her, she’s a young adult. So she’s obviously been around, she’s grown up in this orphanage, she’s grappled with her abilities. And in some ways that would have been a really interesting part of the game, to have somebody deal with these… talents. And then also with the disbelief of the people around her. And you kind of get the sense that her father figures early on… you know, he credits her abilities, but… there isn’t really… she doesn’t really have to worry about people not taking her seriously because most of the time she’s just on her own in a big, scary wood.

Brendan: Why do you think the idea of being able to summon the dead is such good video game fodder? Like what’s captivating about that?

Edwin: Specifically, there’s a kind of… it’s almost like a callback to the midway games of the noughties. I don’t know if you’ve ever played many of them, but the kind of games like Second Sight or Psy-ops, which are all about… supernatural adventures. And they’re all about taking that headline ability – which is usually a fancy piece of technology, as it is in this case where you have this split-screen dual reality mechanic – and really making that the point of the thing, in a quite… charming B-movie kind of fashion. An element of this game’s appeal is trying to reach back to that. But it gets confused because it also wants to be a kind of a dark and moody, gritty, psychological adventure where, you know, you’re uncovering extremely unpleasant things about yourself and about other people and the enjoyment (if you can put it that like) is getting to the bottom of who you are. So yeah, but more generally… there’s all, any number of ways that, you know, summoning the dead can be fun in a video game.

Brendan: It’s pitched as kind of a horror game, but on the horror scale – I don’t know how big a fan you are of horror in particular – but on your horror scale, where would you rank it? Like, is it Amnesia-level scary? Silent Hill-level scary?

Edwin: It’s probably… it kind of wants to be Silent Hill and Amnesia. In particular, it wants that sort of slow burn ambience that… the classic Silent Hills have, where it’s not so much things jumping out at you as just hearing the radio static in the fog. And it wants the… I guess the, kind of… the compositional intelligence of Amnesia and the question of sanity. But really it’s kind of a gamey construct. One of its errors, I think as a horror game is that it has got basically one main monster and you see, more or less, the full form of this monster pretty much the first time you encounter it. I mean, it’s in the shadow, so it is still a threatening presence, but there is no… you have no sort of ambiguity about what it is, the fact that it is a monster, and then you… you have to interact with it, firstly, by running away [from] it in a kind of a reflex-driven gauntlet run, which took me about three or four attempts because I was getting confused by the camera angles. And then you have to do a sneaky stealth mission. And again, you can see the whole thing. You can see the creature clearly, it’s stomping around looking for you and you just wait for its view cones and move away and go past it. So it’s not a particularly… I think it’s quite a good monster in some ways. Apart from anything else that has a voice performance from Troy Baker who is, you know, Mister Ubiquitous Voice Man, which is a little bit Grinch-esque at times, a little bit Jim Carrey in the Grinch, but otherwise also it’s quite disturbing. But it’s just the way they frame it and present it. It doesn’t actually inspire unease. It’s more about just feeling inconvenienced by this thing, which keeps getting in your way and requiring you to sneak, you know, leg it, or whatever it may be.

Brendan: Would you compare it to Mr. X in Resident Evil 2. If people have played that game, there’s a big stomping hulk of a man, it kind of walks around after you. There’s a lot of running away from him, and it’s more tension than it is dread. Is it like that? Or is it more… is it even more simple?

Edwin: It’s not as persistent as Mr. X. I mean, Mr. X is – past certain point in the game – he’s pretty much anywhere. He can… can follow you anywhere in the police station in Resident Evil 2. In [The Medium] it’s more like small confined areas where it’s more of a stealth obstacle. I mean, there’s a good moment when… I don’t know how much I want to give away but basically… there’s a particular section where it’s less visible and you realize that it can follow you into somewhere where you didn’t think it was able to go, and you thought you were safe. You know, that’s, that’s a good touch, but you know, the more you encounter it, the more you realize that it’s just… it’s something that is going to be in a small area. And you can usually work out which area it is in advance, because you can look at the arrangement of hiding spots and how the camera’s positioned. It’s one of those things… like, you know, walking through the, uh, the cover layouts in Gears of War before the Locust attack. The unease disappears quite quickly, even though the ambiance, the architecture and mood of the game is quite good.

Brendan: The split worlds thing that you’ve been telling us about, the split screen where the screen will split into two parts and you’ll see one of the real world as we would see it, and then one of a spirit realm… what does the spirit realm look like to a medium?

Edwin: So it’s actually… there’s quite a, I mean, they… I think that the spirit world is inspired by a particular painter, a dystopian sort of abstract painter. Uh, he was actually murdered in 2005, I discovered, and I’m going to horribly mispronounce his name, but I think it’s Beksiński. And what it looks like in the game is, there’s a sort of a touch of insect hive to some parts of the spirit world, it’s kind of papery surfaces. This idea of kind of like pulped-up matter and lots of suspended bones and things caught in webs. And then… the spirit world takes on different shapes at different points in the story, depending on which kind of particular character you’re investigating at the time. Um, so at one point it’s a kind of a slimy tentacular thing. And then there’s an area which is a sort of garishly red-lit bureaucratic maze of paper and filing cabinets. And those bits are all, I mean, it’s, you know… it does have some good moments in terms of its locations, I think. I kinda wish it did more with its forests, it has some wonderful kind of forest walks, where the camera pulls back quite a lot. And you feel nicely dwarfed by the trees. The split world effects somewhat works against it because the puzzles it builds around the split screen functionality aren’t particularly interesting. And its camera work is a bit lacking in the sense that, while it’s aiming for that kind of disorientation you get in the classic Resident Evils, where the cameras set up blind spots and… you’re coming around a corner and you can’t quite see the thing that’s making a noise, those sorts of effects. It’s aiming for that. But… in practice, it just seems to make things hard to navigate. And when you have the dual split-screen effect, it’s obviously… the screen is compressed and it becomes even murkier at times. So yeah… it’s a mixed bag again.

Brendan: And that split screen, it’s not something that you can just activate whenever you want. It’s scripted moments that this appears.

Edwin: Yes. Uh, it kind of evolves over the course of the game. So you have a split screen functionality, which comes in at specific, at particular times and then later on things become a bit more blurred. And you might have areas where you’re just purely in the spirit world, for instance.

Brendan: The studio who made this, Bloober Team, they also made the Layers of Fear games, which are about artists who go mad basically, and have their own breakdown. They also made Observer, which is sort of a cyberpunk take on horror. How different is this to those previous games the studio has made? I don’t know if you’ve played them or not, but…

Edwin: I have. Yeah. And I mean, it’s not as good, I think it would be the summary. It feels like it’s a passion project they’ve had, I think they’ve been working on it since 2012. I think it was at least, and it feels like a game that’s sort of been knocking around and they haven’t quite been able to work out how to make it right. And they’ve sort of finally got somewhere, but it doesn’t really feel complete. It doesn’t have the… Observer has that sort of cyberpunk dystopian setting and is set inside and in a single apartment block in Krakow. And it’s just very… quite lurid at times, and quite lumpy in terms of its pacing and various bits of voice acting. But [has] quite a compelling idea… a particular sort of Eastern European cyberpunk aesthetic. Layers of Fear, I think is a bit more… in the realm of horror cliche, but it’s, um, it’s interesting because it is, again, a single environment. In this case, it’s an apartment and you’re wandering around it and the environment becomes more and more labyrinthine and, you know, single rooms turn out to be entire mazes of rooms and things like that. And it’s all, you know, it’s good fun. It’s well put together. This [The Medium] feels like they’ve kind of got the framework of a third-person survival horror game from the late nineties, noughties. And they’re trying to put some of the more creative and ambient and puzzle concepts into it. And it’s just… it doesn’t really satisfy in quite the same way.

Brendan: Do you think it suffers from being sort of overly nostalgic for Silent Hill or Resident Evil or is it trying to tap into that and it doesn’t quite work?

Edwin: Yeah… on the one hand it’s trying to capture a particular kind of game. It’s a first for them in many respects. Like, as far as I’m aware, it’s sort of the first game they’ve made which has this particular setup of a third person character with fixed angles and a specific main monster. Like Observer has a lot of people in it, but you are mostly on your own. And there isn’t really… usually isn’t an antagonist or an actual person in the world to avoid – there’s a couple of other characters. Whereas this has a bit more, you know… there’s the monster around and they have to think a bit about how they navigate around the monster Itself.

Brendan: It’s just that one big, bad monster, right? There’s no smaller enemies or anything like that.

Edwin: No, there’s just the big monster and… well there are, there are these moths who, uh, flock in certain areas and basically…

Brendan: It’s always moths.

Edwin: Yeah. I know they’ve got such a reputation. It’s a bit of a touch of Silence of the Lambs, I guess, which has that moth motif. Um, but yeah, they’re basically just a hazard, they flock in certain areas and you need to gather spirit energy in the spirit world to be able to create a force shield that lets you push through them. Otherwise they just nibble you to death, as moths do, or nibble you to “undeath” or whatever you call it when it’s your spirit character.

Brendan: Just to, uh, touch on the nostalgia angle. Did you play a lot of Silent Hill games – old survival horror stuff that this might’ve been inspired by – when you were younger?

Edwin: I did. And I was actually… I mean, I’m a big fan of fixed-perspective composition, you know, people don’t really like it today because it’s disorienting and it’s quite hard to do it when you have a murky, complex environment, without just hiding things from view. But I really like the sense of having a… kind of a malevolent director waging war on you that comes when, for instance, there’s a scene I always reference in the original Resident Evil, when you’re shown a cut scene with this horrendous monster being introduced and coming towards you, and then it reverts to in-game control and you realize that the monster is coming at you out of a blind spot. And you’re like: “Oh!” And so you’ve just basically fired off a bunch of bullets into empty space and you can hear its footsteps. And that’s, you know, that’s an example of that kind of composition being used really well. This just… it doesn’t seem that assured… I mean, again, in the forest environments, you can pull the view out and there’s a nice sense of being dwarfed by your surroundings and it has a few bits where like the camera will not show you what’s around the corner, or it will kind of sweep over you in a vaguely predatory way. And you know, it’ll be slightly kind of tilted. So it kind of like makes you feel uneasy. But a lot of the time the angles just feel quite uninspired. At its worst it just hides things from view. You spend ages tumbling around, waiting for yourself to… trying to trigger that interaction prompt as it were. Yeah. And so I came away a bit disappointed because… you know, I’d like that style to come back. Obviously, Resident Evil has now abandoned it. And I think it’s worth returning to.

Brendan: I was going to say, it feels quite difficult to know what’s, uh, what is a cool moment where you’re shooting into nothing and you can’t see the enemy and it’s tense and frightening – and what’s just a frustrating moment where you’re shooting into nothing and can’t see the enemy and it’s annoying. You know? Like, today I feel like a lot of what Resident Evil did in terms of its camerawork, people would not like it today. It would just… it would hit the shelves and people would be annoyed.

Edwin: Yeah, I think you have to very much target it at that specific audience of throwback horror lovers. Really it’s like… nowadays, it just kind of reads as archaic. I think people see it as an unnecessary constraint and they perceive the kind of disorder, the disorientation of it as being bad design, as opposed to deliberate. Because I mean, there is a level of unease you get with that kind of game, which just comes from the scene transitions. You go from one perspective to the next and, um, you need to kind of mentally recalibrate just a little to work out, you know, whether you’re still walking in the same direction. And the anxiety of that I think is really powerful, if it’s done right. But it’s very hard to do right. And today the expectations are just not there for it.

Brendan: I’m going to ask you a fun question. This is… this is marked as “fun question” on my little script here. So, what would unsettle you more: finding the creature from The Medium under your bed, uh, voiced by Troy Baker, or finding the animatronic robot from Five Nights At Freddy’s in your wardrobe?

Edwin: I mean, what gets me about that question is the wardrobe and the bed position. I don’t quite know what you mean… you’re intending there, but I mean, definitely…

Brendan: I’m just adding that as a kind of a wild card. I don’t want to have any kind of control in this experiment, or thought experiment. I don’t want to have any…

Edwin: It just means the possibility that it could be both. It could be on one under the bed, and one in the wardrobe, it could be a pincer movement. But, um, yeah, I think, I mean, definitely Five Nights At Freddy’s. The animatronic robots, the robots are much worse than, you know… The monster in the medium is good. You know, when you’re not trying to sneak past it behind a crate or running along a tunnel to get away from it. It’s… it is a creepy presence, but yeah, it’s… not one of the all-timers. I would say that much.

Brendan: I’m surprised. It always surprises me how many people are really freaked out by anonymous objects that look like they could move…

Edwin: Well, it’s the context.

Brendan: As opposed to a full-blown monster with weird Troy Baker voice!

Edwin: Well, yeah, I mean, weird Troy Baker voice goes a long way. I think he’s, he’s quite… he’s everywhere. You know, he’s like our generation’s Nolan North or whatever the correct way of phrasing it [is]. But he does have a lot of flexibility. And this is him kind of doing a bit of a Joker-ish turn… You hear him kind of crooning things – I think “crooning” is probably the right word – from the shadows and whispering all sorts of ghastly things he’s going to do when he catches you and it all gets quite queasy and there’s… there is an undertone of, you know, sexual threat. Although I don’t think it’s… I think it’s just about handled responsibly enough, but, uh, yeah. I mean with Five Nights At Freddy’s, you’re kind of missing out the key point, which is that you’re chained to this desk. You’ve got these things coming around, you know, you can see them coming, but you can’t get away from them. Whereas in The Medium, you just go and hide behind a box.

Brendan: All right… we’re gonna leave it there. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan Caldwell, and my guest co-host this week, Edwin Evans-Thirlwell. Thanks very much for coming on and sharing your fear with us, or your lack of fear, as the case might be.

Edwin: Thank you. It’s great to be here and to hear fascinating things about mediums and psychics, which I will now go and read up further.

Brendan: Is there anywhere people can find you online if they want to hear more of your thoughts about perhaps non-ghost games?

Edwin: This is a terrible thing to ask me because I want to share my Twitter account, but my Twitter account is complex and involves spelling.

Brendan: You can do it. Everyone else does it.

Edwin: So it’s @dirigiblebill so, all right, here we go. So it’s D I R I G I B L E B I L L. That’s my Twitter account, carefully designed to be very find-able and memorable.

Brendan: If you’re listening at home and you have enjoyed this episode, please consider supporting us. Like I said before, if you become a regular supporter, you get extra goodies, including longer interviews with the scientists, the historians, all the other experts that we talk to, but you also get a bonus episode every month in which we talk about games more casually, uh, we don’t run ads. We rely solely on the help of good people, good people like BokChoy, one of our goodest supporters, good people like Horrendomonas. I hope I said that right. Uh, good people like… this is the last one, let me just read it word for word… Milk Is Gross And Bad For You. Thank you to all of those people who are our Porpoise-level listeners, but thanks also to the rest of the fact gang, without whom we couldn’t afford to do this. Uh, if you have a moment, you could also help us by giving us a review on iTunes or wherever you can give us some stars or ratings or whatever. Or you can just share the episode with anyone you think might be into ghosts or disproving the existence of ghosts. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another episode, but for now, thanks once again to you, Edwin.

Edwin: Thank you.

Brendan: And please keep lessoning.

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